The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory

I recently acquired a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory, by Scientific American’s George Musser, which has been out for a few months now. It’s a popular-level treatment of modern physics, string theory and quantum gravity, much like many other such books, but now in the “Complete Idiot’s” style of lots of cartoons, graphics, material set off in boxes, and short summaries of chapters. As such, I guess it does as good a job as any of putting this material in a form designed to sell it to as many people as possible.

Musser is an enthusiast for just about any and every speculative idea about space and time. Besides string theory, the book covers loop quantum gravity, causal dynamical triangulations, the idea that spacetime is a fluid or a giant computer, and even some ideas I’d never heard of (we live in 3 dimensions because “For the simplest particle, we can make three mutually exclusive measurements”????). The treatment is often breathless, continually going on about how “exciting” all this is. In many ways, the book reads like advertising copy, hyping the promise of ideas (with string theory getting the bulk of the attention) while mostly ignoring or minimizing their problems. For example, the chapter on symmetry contains more than two pages on the “Pros and Cons” of supersymmetry, but this turns out to be just about all “pros” until a short paragraph at the end that begins: “That said, supersymmetry raises some questions that physicists have yet to solve”.

I think I’m tempermentally allergic to this sort of discussion of science, but can see that some people like it and I realize there are arguments in its favor (get those kids and taxpayers excited about science!). Within the limits of such a genre, much of the book does a reasonable job, until the later chapters, where it starts to go off the rails.

There’s a chapter on “parallel universes” which promotes the anthropic multiverse, describing it as “the most promising scientifically” of all possible options. Despite the fact that many string theorists are extremely unhappy with seeing this kind of thing promoted as the received wisdom of their field, Musser claims that:

String theorists originally expected everything to be hard-wired but now think that almost everything is accidental

The scientific advisor for the book was Keith Dienes of the String Vacuum Project, and the list of those most prominently thanked for their help is dominated by landscape proponents Dienes, Bousso, Carroll and Tegmark.

A late chapter entitled “Ten Ways to Test String Theory” goes beyond the overly enthusiastic into the realm of the misleading and the simply untrue. According to Musser, the LHC will test string theory, GLAST will test string theory, Auger will test string theory, Planck will test string theory, LIGO will test string theory, a successor to Super-Kamiokande will test string theory, all the various dark-matter experiments will test string theory, table-top measurements of Newton’s law will test string theory, bouncing laser beams off the moon will test string theory, checking midget galaxies to see if their stars have planets will test string theory, and looking for variation of fundamental constants will test string theory. This is really egregious nonsense.

The next to last chapter is about “The String Wars”, and I appear prominently as “the most persistent and forceful critic of string theory”, paired with Lubos Motl for my “over-the-top” comments. One of the few explicit factual errors in Musser’s book is the claim that my book grew out of this blog (the book was written earlier, but took a long time to get published). The chapter is quite a bit less than even-handed in its discussion of these “wars”, and mainly devoted to shooting down the supposed arguments of critics of string theory. I come in for criticism as endlessly putting forward a “silly deadline” of less than twenty years for string theory to have succeeded in reaching its goals. This straw man argument is conclusively bested, while ignoring the real argument, which is that the huge investment in time and effort put into string theory research has just produced more and more evidence that string theory-based unification is an idea that doesn’t work. The problem is not the magnitude of the rate of progress towards understanding unification, it’s the sign. And, soon I can start going on about 25 years….

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19 Responses to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to String Theory

  1. Kea says:

    Oh, but you are familiar with mutually unbiased bases – for spin they correspond to the x, y and z directions. As operators they are the Pauli operators. In the modern bootstrap, these correspond to the three indices of the next higher MUB set, corresponding to mass. Very popular in Quantum Foundations these days. In fact, I just got a postdoc to study them.

  2. Roland says:

    How can a book with a chapter full of egregious nonsense contain only few explicit factual errors?

  3. tomate says:

    It has no errors: being a theory of everything, every experiments tests it, including Millikan, Michelson-Morley, etc.

  4. Marion Delgado says:

    It was that enthusiasm “for just about any and every speculative idea about space and time” that made me sour on the physics lectures and presentations I used to go to that were cutting edge string-theoretic.

    Tachyons, in particular. Nonetheless, I’ll read the book.

  5. Gazouille says:

    I think it might be that nonsense can’t [even] be wrong…

  6. Will says:

    I dont know what good it does to comment about a naive book.

  7. Peter Woit says:


    Actually I don’t think it’s a naive book. It reflects accurately the views of one segment of the theoretical physics community, that which thinks the multiverse is science, string theory is the way to get unification, and hyping this kind of research to the public is a good idea.

  8. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    It took a while before I figured out that such treatments of relatively speculative ideas about high-energy/unification physics were skewed. In fact, it was in the process of trying to figure out just how skewed that I came across this blog.

    That said, one of the best physics popularizations, in part, that I’ve read was “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene. Not because (any more) of the stringy content, but the great attention paid to the established stuff. The discussion of Bell’s Inequalities in the notes was for me both demanding but very approachable and rewarding for the effort, and one of the best attempts at giving the layperson a reasonably rigorous understanding of what hidden variables are all about that I’ve encountered. In that regard, portions of that book seemed very much in the spirit of what is now my hands-down favorite popularization of science of any discipline, namely “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter”.

    If you ask me, that must be the best “For Dummies” book ever written. I really wish someone would take Feynman’s approach, modernize it a bit to reflect the current state of established particle physics and QFT, couple it with an equally clever and illuminating treatment of GR, and, well, actually be able to sell it as is. I fear that the only way to get something like that published is to make it an introduction to whatever TOS the author specializes in. It’s too bad, because there are loads of people out there who really think they know something about quantum gravity, but have only the vaguest notion of what the modern, tested, firmly-established theories of quantum and gravity are really all about. They’ll talk compactifications and Calabi-Yau manifolds with an air of completely unwarranted authority, but haven’t a clue what a tensor or a Hamiltonian are.

    Hell, I was one of those people. And that’s a problem. I’m gaining a better appreciation of how ignorant I am with each passing day, but I fear these books, in their often well-meaning enthusiasm for the wonders of the frontiers of science, tend to (unintentionally, I hope) give people an utterly false sense of confidence about their true level of understanding. I never got that feeling with QED, because of Feynman’s grounded introduction. I don’t think the speculative stuff is all about profit, necessarily. I just wish there were more QED’s out there, and that publishers and/or the public at large got excited about them. Maybe they don’t because real understanding is too much work, and a real appreciation for one’s lack of understanding isn’t the American Way.

  9. Visitor says:

    “. . . . real understanding is too much work, and a real appreciation for one’s lack of understanding isn’t the American Way.”

    If you are aware of any country in which an equivalent statement is not true, please enlighten me, so that I can seriously research the feasibility of going there to live.

  10. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    It’s the only book market I’m really familiar with. Sorry.

  11. Chris W. says:

    So, Visitor, are you saying Americans no longer have a monopoly on cocksure, smug ignorance? Maybe we’ve succeeded in exporting that, along with our sophisticated grasp of modern finance. 🙂

  12. csrster says:

    _This_ is the complete idiot’s guide to string theory:

  13. anon. says:

    Peter, I wonder if you have seen another popular book (on a less speculative topic than string theory), ‘Quantum Field Theory Demystified’, by David McMahon which was published in February by McGraw-Hill,

    It has some bad reviews for making mathematical errors, but I like the idea of popularizing this stuff. I’d appreciate any comments you have on that book, if you’ve read it.

  14. Peter Woit says:


    I took a look at the McMahon book once in a store. It’s not at all a popular book, but a real textbook, one that tries to boil down some difficult material to help a serious student starting out in the subject. It might be a good place for some people to begin learning the subject.

    The same author also has a similar book on string theory, which I also looked at, but I think that’s less successful. The material is just so complex that trying to get it into a low-level, accessible form is not going to work out as well.

  15. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I realized upon re-reading that I typed “TOS” instead of “TOE”. S and E are adjacent on the keyboard, and I’m a sloppy typist. It occurred to me one could potentially read into that typo some scatological hidden meaning, which was not at all my intent. Freudians, make of it what you will.

  16. Coin says:

    One of the few explicit factual errors in Musser’s book is the claim that my book grew out of this blog (the book was written earlier, but took a long time to get published).

    Huh. When was the book written in relation to that “String Theory: An Evaluation” article?

  17. woit says:

    Coin, my book was mostly written in 2002, after the 2001 article, before the 2004 start of the blog

  18. anon. says:

    Thank you Peter, I’ve just bought the McMahon QFT book, and it does look useful.

  19. Andrew says:

    Hi Peter,

    Do you have anything to say about John Moffat’s new book “Reinventing Gravity”?

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